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Charter school is Young Circle’s first sign of development

Just steps away from Young Circle — home to the city’s newly renovated ArtsPark — a four-story, 105,000-square-foot school will open its doors Monday as the new home of the Hollywood Academy of Arts and Science.

Parents, teachers and community leaders say the new building fits in well with what the city is trying to do in its downtown — create a place where people can live, work and play.

“Education is certainly a key component of creating a positive environment and attracting people to the community,” said Jorge Camejo, Hollywood’s Community Redevelopment Agency Director.

The new $17 million building is the first sign of development on the Circle in years, though there have been some recent approvals that city leaders hope will add new residences and shopping to the area.

While the school was supposed to be part of a larger scale development — dubbed block 58 — recent changes to the approval allowed the Red Apple Development Company to build just the school building at 1705 Van Buren St. The rest of the land — two acres between Harrison Street, 17th Avenue, U.S. 1/Federal Highway and Van Buren Street — remains bank owned.

Parents and teachers said seeing the opening of the building means a permanent home for the charter school, which first opened its doors in 2004 in the Home Tower, a condominium complex at 1720 Harrison St.

Being in the condo tower was difficult: the school had to retrofit the first four floors and the kids had to walk to a small nearby lot that was used as a playground.

“It was not a free standing school. It made parents uncomfortable,” said Janée Womack, whose son is going into seventh grade.

Being in its own building gives the school more control.

“We are finally getting what we were promised,” said Cleopatra Fiorella, whose daughter will be an eighth-grader this year. “They have been in a place that was never meant to be a school.”

Maya Fiorella said she is looking forward to spend her final year before high school in a new building.

“It looks a lot bigger,” she said. “There will be a lot to discover.”

Maya’s right. The new building means more space — and some added luxuries: water fountains at different heights to accommodate kindergartners and eighth-graders, a rooftop playground for the older kids and a covered playground for the younger children.

Shiny white floors lead students to dozens of freshly painted classrooms that have already begun to be decorated. Brand new desks are set up in each classroom, with bulletin boards equipped with energy efficient light systems.

“It’s like getting a new car,” said Diana Suissa, a fifth-grade math teacher who decorated her classroom to look like an enchanted forest. “You don’t want that feeling to go away.”

Perhaps the biggest change this school year is the number of students that will attend — almost doubling from 680 to 1293. The number of kindergarten classes triples from three to nine.

“We are really growing,” said Principal Donte Fulton-Collins. “It’s exciting for the whole community.”

The Hollywood Academy of Arts and Science is an A-rated school managed by Charter Schools USA. It’s constantly had a waiting list, Fulton-Collins said.

With the expansion, this year a majority of the children will come from surrounding communities.

“It’s becoming more of a neighborhood school,” Fulton-Collins said.

The school building is the only part of a project brought forward in 2003 that would have added condominiums, shops, a theater and the school that has been built, said city spokeswoman Raelin Storey.

With the failing economy, it became evident in 2007 that the original developer, HART District LLC, led by the late Gary Posner, was not going to be able to develop it as conceived, Storey said. Another developer stepped in, but failed to build the condo towers and retail shops.

Meanwhile, Red Apple Development was deeded a piece of land to build the school.

Joyce Daniel said she was thrilled her daughter, who is going into the eighth grade, will be able to experience the new facility.

“I don’t think I’ll have any trouble getting her up and ready for school this year,” said Daniel.